A buffoonish, pleasure-seeking state bureaucrat tries to suppress nightmare memories from his past.
Ma Daode has recently been appointed director of the China Dream Bureau. The Bureau’s project is one of national rejuvenation, a restatement of Communistic values. Ma decides the best way to do this is by erasing troubling memories of the past. He works on the idea of a ‘neural implant’, a chip that would be implanted in the brain, allowing the subject to live more perfectly the China Dream.
All should be going well for Ma. He has position, authority, wealth and a virtual harem of lovers. If only he weren’t troubled by such terrible memories, horrific images from his past. The worst memories are from the Cultural Revolution. In his youth Ma denounced his parents as “rightists”, joined a political faction and involved himself in killing, betrayal and ritual humiliations. His parents committed suicide and he can never forgive himself.
It is torture for Ma, trying to forget. He tries all sorts of diversions, but nothing works. Eventually he goes to a Qigong healer, Master Wang, who gives him a recipe for a concoction that will hopefully help him forget.
Chinese author Ma Jian, an exiled dissident who now lives in London, found the idea for this novel from President Xi Jinping’s call for a “China Dream of national rejuvenation”, one that would maintain economic success and restore China to its former glory. The novel is part satire and part political allegory, a study of the conflicted nature of the Chinese national psyche: past horrors such as the Cultural Revolution must be expunged from memory, even though they form a vital part of the country’s history.
China Dream is written with concision and clarity, perfectly animating its surreal and absurdist subject matter (full marks to Flora Drew’s superb translation). The character of Ma Daode is described almost as an affable fool. It’s easy to feel some sympathy for this clownish bungler, despite the terrible confessions from his past. Ma Jian’s surreal and ironic novel is reminiscent of Russian greats such as Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Bulgakov. It’s a work that examines the deep contradictions found in any national character that tries to suppress its past and has a universality beyond being a spoof of President Xi Jinping’s state propaganda.
China Dream, by Ma Jian. Published by Chatto and Windus. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Once you've entered Cynthia Rylant's sweetly remembered childhood world, you won't want to leave.
It’s the early 1970s. Ten-year-old Flora lives in the idyllic Rosetown, Indiana. Her mother works at a quaint vintage bookstore three days a week and her father is a photographer for the local newspaper. Flora is a bit daunted by entering her fourth year at school – the classes are notably more demanding – but she has her good friend Yury to help smooth the way. Many nice things happen to Flora. She finds a wonderful cat, who magically appears on a seat at the vintage bookstore and relaxes there. Flora adopts the cat and calls it Serenity. Her school teacher thinks she has talent as a writer and encourages her.
While Flora’s life, and the little town she lives in, seems perfect in every way, there are dark shadows at the edges. Her parents have separated, the Vietnam War is slowly winding to an end and Yury’s family has fled the Ukraine due to war. Her best friend, Nessy, lives in a gated community, a fact that hints at a world that is not entirely safe.
These dark shadows, however, are only peripheral. They are grey clouds that soon pass over, leaving Rosetown forever bathed in sunlight and happiness.
Some readers may find Rosetown too idyllic, even saccharine. It’s true, Cynthia Rylant does describe a near perfect world. Some of it self-consciously so: the local bakery is called the Peaceable Buns Bakery and piano lessons are taken at Three Part Harmony. This reviewer, however, was totally won over, accepting that Rosetown is almost a work of fantasy, a re-creation of the best parts of the author’s childhood. Rylant’s style has a lovely naturalism, like that of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery. Or to use a musical analogy, this short novel has aspects of Dolly Parton’s songs of sweetly remembered childhood, such as "Coat of Many Colours" and "God’s Colouring Book".
A perfectly constructed children’s novel that strives only to be itself.
Rosetown, by Cynthia Rylant. Published by Beach Lane. RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A vivid and joyous rendering of African American life in the early years of the 20th century.
Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967) was a much acclaimed African-American poet, playwright and columnist. His first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), is set in the town of Stanton, Kansas. A coming of age story, the novel centres around the young boy, Sandy, as he grows to young adulthood.
The action of the story takes place in the 1910s. Sandy is being raised by his grandmother, Aunt Hager. She is a kind, hardworking, God fearing woman, the backbone of her family. She has three daughters. Annjee, Sandy’s mother, works a thankless and humiliating job as a housekeeper for a white woman, Mrs Rice. Anjee is married to Jimboy, an itinerant worker and guitar player who is not the most responsible of fathers. Aunt Tempy, the second daughter, has married well to a man with a regular job. She’s often harsh and critical of Black folks, especially their popular culture, and is determined to gain acceptance from whites, even if it means being like them. Lastly there is Harriet, the youngest. She has fire in the belly and deeply resents her treatment by white society. She stays out late, runs away from home and makes a living for herself as a singer.
Through the portraits of these four Black women – Aunt Hager, Annjee, Aunt Tempy and Aunt Harriet – the reader is shown the breadth of the African American experience, with all its frustrations, heartaches and contradictions. People of colour try to gain acceptance from whites by playing to their rules, but of course they can never win. The game is stacked against them. Then there are those that resist, and believe in fighting, like Aunt Harriet. Yet their position is precarious.
Not Without Laughter is a magical reading experience. Its style and rhythm is full of music, joy, sorrow, laughter and heartache. Langston Hughes is a master of dialogue, vividly bringing his characters to life. The beauty of African American speech infuses every page; it’s a book that sings. While there is much struggle and hardship, there is also joy and hope, hope for a better future.
Sandy grows to be a young teenager and is faced with a choice, whether to pursue an education or stay in a dead end job. The strong women that have raised him and that dominate this novel – his mother, grandmother and aunts – their voices in the end guide him to the right decision.
Not Without Laughter is a magnificent novel, a joy to read and an education in how American people of colour lived a century ago, shortly after the end of slavery.
Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes. Published by Penguin. RRP: $27.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Biographer Elizabeth Kleinhenz tells the fascinating and complex story of Germaine Greer.
In 2013, Germaine Greer sold her archives – some 500 boxes - to the University of Melbourne. Academic and educator Elizabeth Kleinhenz has spent several years going through this rich resource on Greer’s life to produce a new biography. This is the second book on Greer's life – a notoriously unwilling subject – following Christine Wallace’s 1997 Untamed Shrew.
Kleinhenz produces a fairly straight forward biography here, something most readers will find easily accessible. The book doesn’t examine in critical detail Greer’s literary and intellectual output, which is fair enough (all the major works are discussed, however). That is really the task for another book.
What the biographer concentrates on is Greer the brilliant, complex and often contradictory woman. We get a portrait of someone who is generous, prodigiously intelligent and blessed with a sharp sense of humour, but also quick to anger, difficult and sometimes downright mean. Greer appears in these pages as a strangely isolated figure, yet surrounded by plenty of people. One almost feels sorry for her inability to forge strong, lasting relationships.
“Her behaviour can be as puzzling as it is annoying. Despite her singular intelligence, she can be as inconsistent and irrational as she is insulting. Her apparent lack of emotional empathy is strangely at odds with her literary sensibility. It is amazing to see how a bruising clumsiness in personal relations sits beside the almost pitch-perfect refinement of the best of her writing. A complete contradiction.”
Or as Salman Rushdie noted, after her refusal to sign a petition defending him during The Satanic Verses controversy, “...her determination to be out of step leads her into batty positions.”
I very much enjoyed this fascinating biography, reading it in a couple of days. It goes a long way to explaining some of the more unexplainable aspects of Germaine Greer’s personality, while also lauding her role as a public intellectual and feminist of considerable stature.
Germaine: The Life of Germaine Greer, by Elizabeth Kleinhenz. Vintage. RRP: $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Meet Catvinkle, a pampered puss who dances in baby shoes and makes friends with a Dalmation named Ula.
Catvinkle the cat lives in a stylish house in Amsterdam with her owner, Mr Sabatini. One day the kindly Mr Sabatini meets a homeless Dalmation and decides to take her home. When Catvinkle sees the Dalmation enter her precious room with the deliciously warm fire, she takes umbrage. How could a dog be allowed in the house?
The Dalmation’s name is Ula and soon enough the two take the first troubled steps to get to know each other. As a friendship starts to emerge, Catvinkle reveals some secrets, one of which is her skill as a dancer. She dances in a pair of baby shoes and regularly enters the National Kitten Baby-Shoe Dancing Competition. Her great rival in the competition is the vain and conceited Twinkiepaws. With the help of Ula, Cantvinkle finds the courage to challenge Twinkiepaws in this most celebrated contest.
Elliot Perlman’s first novel for children is a charming and pitch-perfect story about learning to accept difference and meeting life’s challenges. The story has a broad roster of brilliant characters, from the frightening dog Grayston (it turns out he's not so scary in the end) to the somewhat aristocratic and eccentric Russian wolfhound, Lobbus. The hip New York cat Ketzington is a hoot: her parents met at a nightclub called Studio Fifty Paws. There is much energy, imagination and invention in Catvinkle. A favourite hangout for the dogs is a place called “Café Puppy Land”, where dogs had been “resting, drinking and snacking since 1642”; a club for cats called Kittens Anonymous meets on the western side of Vondelpark.
Enter Catvinkle’s cosy, pampered world and prepare to be charmed.
The Adventures of Catvinkle, by Elliot Perlman. Published by Puffin. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a body is found stuffed down a well in the basement of the Rue Theatre, young detective team Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells know only they can solve the mystery.
It’s 1936. The place is London. Amateur sleuths fourteen-year-old Hazel Wong and fifteen-year-old Daisy Wells are staying with Daisy’s uncle Felix and aunt Lucy. To keep the girls busy and out of trouble, it’s decided to pack them off to the Rue Theatre. Aunt Lucy has some connections there and manages to land the girls bit parts in an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
They meet Frances Crompton, the owner of the Rue, and are soon enchanted by the magic of the theatre. But as they get to know the cast and other backstage members, they sense tensions bubbling away. Rose Tree, the actress playing Juliet, is tempestuous and has rubbed a few people up the wrong way. The fiery yet beautiful Martita, a Portugese actress playing Nurse, loathes Rose. Other actors, the American Simon Carver and handsome Lysander Tollington, playing Romeo, also have rocky relationships with her. The plot thickens as threatening notes start turning up, targeting Rose.
Something terrible is brewing. Hazel and Daisy fear they will have to open their famous Detective Society for business again. The full horror of their suspicions is revealed when a body is found stuffed head-first down the well in the theatre’s basement. Who could have done it? So many had a motive for murder.
For adults reading this brilliantly paced and plotted children’s novel, it may feel like a spoof of the Agatha Christie / Dorothy L. Sayers crime genre. This reviewer couldn’t stop chuckling away at the campy, shock-horror plot developments and character histrionics. In one scene, the forthright Daisy addresses leading man Lysander with, “Step aside! If you please.” The cast is well drawn and nicely varied, from old timer Jim Cotter who mans the stage door to the flamboyant director, Inigo Leontes. The doll-like and garrulous Annie Joy, the wardrobe mistress, is a hoot. Interestingly, Robin Stevens weaves several gay characters into the plot, but it’s done so well it doesn’t jar. Hazel and Daisy are quite progressive when it comes to such matters and see the law penalising homosexual activity as so much stuff and nonsense.
It’s perhaps best to describe Death in the Spotlight as a hugely entertaining romp, one that perfectly captures the mood, language and characters of the British crime genre of the 1930s. At close to 400 pages, the suspense, laughs and good cheer never let up. Great fun and highly recommended!
Death in the Spotlight, by Robin Stevens. Published by Puffin. RRP: $16.99
A young man is asked to make a bargain with the devil, putting his beloved pet cat, Cabbage, at risk.
The unnamed narrator, a young man who works as a postman, discovers he has a terminal brain tumour. He doesn’t have long to live. Out of nowhere the devil appears, dressed in a flamboyant Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sunglasses, as though he were on holiday. His personality matches his breezy attire.
The devil makes a bargain with the young man: he can have an additional day of life, but for each day he must make something disappear from the world. At first he trades mobile phones. They disappear from the world, not such a bad thing he decides. The choices, however, become increasingly difficult, as the devil demands things disappear that have special meaning for the young man. Then comes the ultimate test: he is asked to make cats disappear from the world to live an extra day.
This causes the young man to think deeply. He has a pet cat called Cabbage who he is very close to. Cabbage was found many years ago by his recently deceased mother. Understandably, Cabbage carries all sorts of meaning, bringing memories of time spent with his family. Especially his father, who is still alive, but from whom the young man is estranged.
The basic plot outline of this short novel by Japanese author Genki Kawamura sounds grim and cheerless, but the tone is quite comic and whimsical (the young man calls the devil “Aloha”, due to his colourful shirts). Kawamura infuses his story with a light and playful tone. It enchants with its earnestness, quirky dialogue, likable characters and amusing, oddball digressions.
At heart the book is about what we need and what we don’t need, what’s most important in life and what sustains us. It’s about the fragility of life, the bonds of family and the importance of maintaining our relationships with those we love.
An unusual little gem that quickly grows on you.
If Cats Disappeared from the World, by Genki Kawamura. Published by Picador. RRP: $18.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Financial journalist Damon Kitney has written a compelling biography of James Packer, a complex and troubled man haunted by his father’s legacy.
James Packer, one of Australia’s richest men, guards his privacy jealously. Surprisingly, after several requests from financial journalist Damon Kitney (The Australian Financial Review, The Australian), he decided to co-operate in the writing of this biography. What ensued was six months of interviews, conducted at various locations across the globe, plus plenty of additional email material from Packer himself. Kitney also interviewed a wide range of Packer’s friends, business associates and even ex-wives.
The result is a measured, almost sympathetic portrait of a deeply divided and troubled man. Kitney has some two decades experience covering business and he brings his knowledge and communication skills to the fore when outlining James Packer’s chequered business history. He chronicles the devastating failures (the One.Tel collapse; the failed US casino investments; the selling of cherished family assets to pay off debts) with clarity, avoiding complex jargon.
At the centre of the James Packer story, though, is his relationship with his father, Kerry. Kerry Packer’s toughness and brutality were legendary, qualities drummed into him by his own father, Sir Frank Packer. James was especially traumatised by the colossal failure of One.Tel, losing his father’s business some 300 million dollars. Packer senior humiliated his son over the matter. When James inherited the family business, he set himself a goal of trying to live up to his father’s business legacy. This meant achieving profits in the billions, a Herculean task. Such a high benchmark has meant a constant feeling of failure. It’s also led to poor decision making, trusting the wrong people, alcohol abuse and a dependence on prescription drugs. His life seems a misery, despite the lush homes, luxury boats and jet-set lifestyle.
One wonders: why not sell it all and simply live off the interest? But as the ghost of Kerry Packer looms, demanding that the family legacy be preserved, James continues to take on the enormous stress of big debts and big business gambles. He appears to be utterly trapped, unable to re-create his life in his own image. By his own admission, Packer has no real interest in the gaming industry. He simply sees it as a stable, dependable income stream. One friend in the book wisely suggests once James finds a business he’s really passionate about, then he’ll be successful. (To the author’s credit, he raises the question of the ethics of the casino industry with Packer.)
James Packer is often described by his friends and business associates as being an essentially soft, gentle, generous soul. His bad moods, volatility and rudeness are often put down to the pressure he constantly finds himself under, rather than an innate part of his personality. The business life he has chosen, or rather inherited, seems a bad fit.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a multi billionaire, yet Damon Kitney does a good job of trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. The reader does come some way to understanding the complex motivations Packer has due to his family legacy and fortune. It weighs like a ton of bricks on his shoulders. The simple fact that Packer has agreed to have his life laid bare like this shows how much he must be suffering an existential crisis. This is an exasperated and confused middle-aged man asking out loud what he should do.
The lesson we learn from The Price of Fortune is that wealth, what we all strive for, may be limited in the happiness it can provide. Business leaders, media talking heads and politicians fete James Packer as the apogee of success, a man to be emulated. Maybe they got their business model wrong.
The Price of Fortune: The Untold Story of Being James Packer, by Damon Kitney. Published by HarperCollins RRP: $45.
Review by Chris Saliba
A lively and engaging collection of literary essays.
Francine Prose is an American novelist and critic, better known in her home country than in Australia. What to Read and Why is a collection of previously published material, covering a broad range of literature, everything from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to more contemporary writers such as Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach) and Deborah Levy (Swimming Home).
The marvelous thing about Prose, besides her energetic and enlivening writing style, is her sheer enthusiasm for books and reading. She often talks about her “messianic zeal” in spreading the word on some new writer she has discovered, telling friends to drop whatever they doing immediately. While most of this collection discusses authors and their works, several essays are devoted to the subject of writing and reading, the aesthetic joys and philosophical revelations derived from the printed page. The first piece, "Ten Things That Art Can Do", usefully lists the many different experiences art can give us, such as its ability to teach, produce beauty and shock. Another essay tries to distill what the function of the short story is, as opposed to that of the novel. What, exactly, is its essence? Quoting numerous experts on the subject, both the famous and the academic, Prose discovers there is no single defining feature. The possibilities are as far and wide as the human imagination itself.
Books on writers can often inspire the reader to cast her net wider afield and try something unknown. The pieces on writers Mavis Gallant, Roberto Bolano and Isaac Babel will have you hunting through bookshops and libraries in search of their work. For those who found Karl Ove Knausgaard’s cycle of autobiographical novels My Struggle too daunting to contemplate, Prose writes a tempting appreciation.
Witty, sharp and perceptive, Francine Prose acts as both fan and critic, constantly reminding throughout these compelling essays what a joy it is to read.
What to Read and Why, by Francine Prose. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780062397867 RRP: $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A computer scientist brings a humanistic approach to the problem of social media.
Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, musician and writer. He offers a unique perspective on issues to do with technology and society by way of his long history with the tech community. Both an insider and outsider, he has voiced concerns in books such as You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future about how the open internet culture of Facebook and Google has reduced human expression and potential, while taking our data and monetizing it for huge profits.
In the short and snappy Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier explains how social media is degrading language, spreading misinformation, exploiting cheap labour, alienating people from reality, distorting how they see the world and also making us angry, lonely and irritable. Quite a list!
Social media is designed to be addictive. Lanier sees it as a form of hypnosis, but a dangerous one.
“Hypnosis might be therapeutic so long as you trust your hypnotist, but who would trust a hypnotist who is working for unknown third parties? Who? Apparently billions of people.”
Lanier coins an acronym to describe the algorithmic machines that track everything we do online in order to create customised feeds: “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. BUMMER.” In humourous tones reminscent of science fiction writers Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaw Lem, the reader is warned of how the BUMMER machine is undermining just about every aspect of our lives, from democracy and public discourse to how we see and think about ourselves. BUMMER technology is causing mass isolation. One of the most depressing points that the book raises is how hard it is to know other people now because we don’t know the customised feeds that individuals – billions of individuals – are exposed to. Once upon a time we were all roughly on the same page, but now no one is on the same page.
Ten Arguments is for the most part cheerful and optimistic, firm in its belief that we can keep the internet and smart phones, we simply need to get rid of the BUMMER machine. Beneath the jollity and jokes, Lanier is an erudite and philosophical writer with a gentle, poetic nature. He’s a rare, humanist voice on the subject of computer technology and its impact on us. The book’s final argument for deleting your social media accounts is one of self-knowledge and awareness. “Whatever a person might be,” writes Lanier, “if you want to be one, delete your accounts.”
If you want to gain insights into how invidious social media really is, read Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781847925398 RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba